l8<2 MY COUNTRY AND MY PEOPLE There is no hard-and-fast line of distinction between the yamen and the non-yamen class. The family, rather than any hereditary class, is the social unit. These families go up and down kaleidoscopically. Every- man past forty has seen with his own eyes how some families rise and others go down. Social democracy is maintained in the West or in China, not by any constitution but, as someone has pointed out, by our prodigal sons. Of these prodigal sons, there are plenty in China who, through their prodigality, make the rise of a permanent rich class impossible, standing thus, as it were, as the bulwark of democracy. The civil examinations made it possible always for ambitious and able men to rise from the bottom of the scale. From such examina- tions none were excluded except the sons of beggars or prostitutes. And education was not so costly that only sons of the higher classes could afford it. While learning was a privilege of the talented, it was never the privilege of the rich, No one was known to be seriously handicapped in his academic career by his poverty. In this sense, it may be said that there was equality of opportunity for all. The Chinese divide society into four classes, in the following order of importance: the scholars, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants. In a primitive agricultural society in which China always remained, the spirit was essentially democratic. There was no class antagonism, as there was no need. The intercourse between these classes, except, as we have mentioned, the yamen class, was not marred by "class feeling" and snobbery. In the best social tradition of China, a rich merchant or a high official may ask a woodcutter to have a cup of tea and chat quite sociably with him, perhaps with less condescension than the inmates of an English manor house speak to the farm-hand.1 The farmers, the artisans and the merchants, being all part of the sap of the earth, are humble, quiet, self-respecting citizens. The fanners are placed, by Confucian theory, at the head of these three classes, for the rice-conscious Chinese always know where every grain comes from, and they are grateful. They, together with the merchants and artisans, all look up to the 1 A striking example of this is contained in tae sketch called "Democracy" in Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen.